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Unum Bucks Conventional Outsourcing Wisdom by Bringing Service Desk In-House

Unum sees service desk as a core insurance IT organization competency within the ITIL Services Management paradigm and has found a way to provide significantly improved service without increasing costs.

Sydney Crisp, UnumSydney Crisp, Unum
Help desk is hardly a core competency of an insurance company, so it has been a popular candidate for outsourcing in recent years. However, Unum (Chattanooga, Tenn.) is among insurers who are reversing the outsourcing trend on the theory that the service desk is a core competency of an insurance carrier IT organization. As part of an effort to build out its IT organization within the IT Services Management Model (ITIL v.3), Unum's IT organization transitioned from a traditional outsourced help desk model to a 100 percent internal service desk on April 1.

"As you look at owning service back-to-front, you need control over how your services are delivered and perceived, so I think movement to ITIL Service Management will make people take a harder look at whether they have a real service desk as opposed to just having call routing," says Sydney Crisp, VP, global operations and risk management, Unum.

Crisp stresses that bringing the service desk in-house was not inspired by any concerns about the performance of the outsourcing partner. Rather, the concerns related to the inherent limitations of the traditional helpdesk model, within which only a small percentage of issues were resolved on the first call due to the limited knowledge of the outsourced personnel answering the phone, and the need to escalate issues to internal resources.

By bringing the service function back in-house, Crisp explains, Unum believed it could staff its service center with personnel who could provide a much higher rate of first call resolution both through accumulating personal experience and the development of a knowledge base that documented common issues and the measures needed to resolve them. First call resolution not only inspires greater confidence in the IT organization but also reduces service costs in two ways: first, it improves the productivity of the employees placing the call by getting them back to work faster; and it also avoids having to engage higher-compensated engineers to resolve technical issues, according to Crisp.

Unum has begun to build its service desk knowledge base using IBM's TSRM (Tivoli Service Request Manager), which the insurer installed in Sept. 2009. As is typical within the outsourced help desk model, Unum used a tool provided by the vendor, according to Tim Corbin, assistant VP, service management, Unum.

"The outsourced provider's tool was a 'vanilla' application that they used with all their clients," Corbin recalls. "When you wanted to look at issues unique to our company it was sometimes difficult to get the view of requested data, so we decided to move to a tool that we owned and that ran on our infrastructure so that we could get access to the necessary data on demand."

While the decision to install IBM TSRM for internal knowledge management capabilities was made before re-evaluating the outsourced help desk arrangement, installation of the tool proved fortuitous, Corbin acknowledges. "When we decided to bring service desk in-house, it uncomplicated the transition significantly because we didn't need to execute a transition of tool and data: that was already in place," he says.

In Oct. 2010, Unum decided to bring the service desk internally on the basis of three considerations, according to Crisp. First, he relates, Unum reviewed performance statistics and concluded its IT organization could do better. "The second aspect was that we were implementing the IT Service Management Framework and realized this was an important aspect in terms of how IT was received by the broader organization," he says. "The third consideration was that our agreement with the vendor was up for renewal."

The transition was not a hard sell based on projected benefits and savings calculated, according to Corbin. "Years ago when there was a movement towards outsourcing service desk, the argument was that it was a commodity that could be provided more economically on an outsourced basis," he says. "We discovered that we could bring it in-house on a cost-neutral basis, and that enabled us to invest in the knowledge management capabilities without extra investment."

While the software for managing service knowledge is already in place, populating the IBM TSRM database is an ongoing task, according to Crisp. "It's something that has to be built over time, and we have started the process," he says.

Unum also brought new staff on board on by the end of February and trained them to be ready for the April 1 transition. "We were ramping up between hiring and the point at which we would be taking 100 percent of the calls, and the vendor was quite cooperative in helping us to manage that transition," Crisp comments. "Having service desk in the new model allows us to continually increase the level of service we provide because we can very tightly integrate training on more and more capabilities because we have more control over the process."

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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